The words “but what if?” are among your best tools as a writer.
They’re the magic chalk that draws strange new doors on your story’s walls and ceilings. An instant ticket through bizarre alter-dimensions, where your readers would love to follow you in.
As readers, we’re always, always looking for fresh new “caves we fear to enter” with our protagonists. We know the same old plot-beats by instinct… so it’s truly a joy when something turns in its tracks completely, and shocks us silly with its twistiness.
“But what ifs” are fantasy portals and sci-fi beamer-uppers. They’re great glowing mysteries; an enticing aura beyond strange cracks and fissures in the ordinary. They’re at the beating heart of the Hero’s Journey, and its promise to take us from the grindingly normal into strange, intoxicating otherworlds.
“But what if?” gives you permission to be weird. Breaking through the conventional, and the expected, into brave new territory where things can start to get a little unnormal. And original. Which is what really hooks your readers in.
It takes the normal and kicks it into outer space.
“But what if?” throws in strange twists, and utterly surprising subject matter, that your friends might warn you against. If there’s an expectation to follow a certain formula in your fiction, whatever its genre, then it may also be the perfect opportunity to go sideways and try something completely new with it. (Especially if you feel yourself getting bored with your own story.)
In an age of remakes and sequels, there’s so much demand among readers for something fresh. A new cocktail; a fresh delicious mashup of the same old themes.
In other words, “Something Completely Different.”
Take Tabitha, for example. Tabitha’s books started out as a fresh-faced short story, which I was utterly determined to have as a strictly down-to-earth, real-life drama. Something I’d never written before… and something, it turned out, I was wholly incapable of sticking to. Within a few hundred words, this normal tale of a normal girl with a normal life had sprouted alien plants through its floorboards… thus changing her normal life forever.
When it came to writing a true-to-life drama, it turned out that I could only keep the lid of normality on top of that bubbling wordsoup for so long. It had to sprout a spontaneous alien invasion of Earth, or I would’ve given up on the entire story. The entire trilogy, really.
All that to say… don’t be afraid to be strange. In your stories, in your art; in whatever you create.
Ultimately: get weird. Get so deep into your story, and into your world and how it operates, that you’ll wonder whether readers will even follow you there.
…But we will. Because that’s exactly what we’re reading for. We want to be taken to distant worlds. We want to follow storytellers into every weirdness they’re capable of. We’re starving for your originality, and your characters, and the worlds in your head.
So don’t be afraid. Serve it in spades.
“But what if?” makes you unique.
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